Why I’m Leaning Back This Year


Last month a collective round of applause was heard around the world when former First Lady Michelle Obama testified to what we all know to be true about work/life balance. As Mrs. Obama put it:

“That whole, so you can have it all, nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that s**t doesn’t work all the time.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was published when I was pregnant with my first child, but I had long before ingested her message. I grew up in DC, a city of working moms. It was not unusual for me to see my mom or a friend’s mother being interviewed on CNN one night and bringing snacks to soccer practice the next day. The women around me leaned in hard.

And then my daughter was born. I knew within weeks of her birth that I did not want to go back to my job. I told myself I’d do it differently, that I would lean back.  I learned quickly that leaning in can take many forms and catch you by surprise. For me, it was fitting 5 days’ worth of patients into 3 days. It was not getting enough childcare because I felt that if I wasn’t seeing a patient I should be caring for my child. It was feeling like I needed to give all of myself all of the time to my daughter on my days home with her. When my son was born I told myself I’d set better boundaries, I wouldn’t work at night, I’d get more childcare. I fell back into the same trap. I found myself leaning in harder.

Mrs. Obama’s words were such an affirming wakeup call of what I already know to be true. I talk about it with my patients and I’ve written about it. Leaning in does not work for many women, including me. So, this year, I’m resolving to practice what I preach and lean way back. Here is how we can do it.

1. Boundaries:

Figuring out your boundaries and articulating them, first to yourself and then to other people is key. Think about what boundaries you want to set in all domains of your life and be clear about them with others. I’ve seen many people not set a boundary for fear that it wouldn’t be respected or that they would not be able to succeed with a boundary in place. Don’t let that stop you from asking for what you need.

2. Saying No:

Saying no can feel especially hard for women who are socialized to believe that it is our job to care for others or to manage other people’s feelings. We end up overextended, exhausted, and resentful. Instead, try saying a polite no to that third birthday party of the weekend, to volunteering at a school event, or to the happy hour. If you let your boundaries guide you, you will find that saying no starts to feel a bit easier.

3. Your Best vs The Best:

I often differentiate for patients the idea of doing the best vs your best. Your best is fluid, flexible, and based on where you are today while the best is an external definition of perfection. Shooting for your best is calling into a meeting when your kid was up sick all night rather than being first in the office. Doing your best is an act of self-compassion that allows you to lean back.

4. Declutter Your To-Do List:

I love to mark tasks as urgent/important, urgent/non-important, not urgent/important, and not urgent/not important. Take all tasks that fall into the not urgent/not important task and let them go.

5. Outsource:

Outsourcing can take many forms but it’s about not trying to do everything yourself. If it’s within your budget, hire someone to help with household tasks or errands. Even without bursting your budget you can outsource by bringing store-bought cookies instead of homemade ones to your child’s school or using disposable plates for a birthday party to avoid doing the dishes.

So, this year, I hope you will join me in an act of self-compassion and lean way back.